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When you want to learn about tending with a German shepherd, you should first look to the Germans.

Tending specifically (and herding generally) is much different in Europe than here in the U.S. For one, it is much older. It’s also bigger, longer and grander. It’s more involved and more difficult. But it’s also the same in many ways. There’s the dog, the shepherd and the sheep. And of course, there are many, many differences of opinion on how to train (and breed) the perfect German shepherd dog.

Unfortunately, there are very few texts on herding, even less on tending, even less English translations and much, much less on positive reinforcement methods in herding. I’ve gleaned what I can from interviews, translations given to me by Carolyn and second hand knowledge.

One of the things I’ve seen mentioned over and over however is that a proper tending dog should not be permitted to chase wildlife. The statement kept appearing, but no explanation ever seemed to be given.

I did what I often do. I worried. I kept recalling a time when Smokey uncovered a rabbit’s nest on a late night walk, and Shelby went to investigate. Before we could shine a light on the situation, a bunny and a half was down Shelby’s gullet. The remaining bunny was abandoned by its mother (or she was eaten by someone too) and though I tried to save it, it got sick and died.

I kept wondering if this nighttime negligence on my end had somehow ruined Shelby’s chance at being a successful working dog.

One afternoon after a long day of tending, I was chatting with Carolyn while Shelby napped by my feet. From somewhere in the brush, a bunny emerged. Shelby leapt up and took off after it.

“Shelby! NOOO!” I screamed.

“Good God girl, what have I told you about yelling no at your dog’s butt?” Carolyn sighed and watched Shelby bound after her prey.

“But the Germans say not to let them chase wildlife.”

Carolyn laughed. The bunny got away (as bunnies often do), and Shelby turned toward me, tongue lolling, eyes sparkling, tail wagging, “Call your dog.”

Where's the Bunny?

Where’s the Bunny?

With Shelby settled at my feet once more, Carolyn began her, “But she’s a dog, isn’t she?” speech. Carolyn gives it much better than I ever could, but here’s the gist of it:

But she’s a dog isn’t she? Not only that, but she’s a high drive working dog. German shepherds have an even higher drive than border collies because they must maintain interest in animals that are barely moving. Her instinct to chase living animals is what makes her a good herding dog. You don’t want to damage that.

So what do I do?

Well, Carolyn suggested using Shelby’s desire to chase bunnies to my advantage instead of trying to fight against it.

Bunny chasing practice was born.

In my opinion, herding is nothing more than a large, intense application of Premack Principle based behavior sequences.

Say what?

Yep, you read me right. Let me explain as briefly as possible. Basically, the Premack Principle states that the dog (or other animal) is asked to perform a less preferable behavior (in its opinion) so it can then be released to do a more preferable behavior. Equating the behaviors with one another actually increases the likelihood of the occurrence of the first behavior.

Example, every day your child has to do his/her homework but as soon as he/she is done, he/she gets to play his/her Xbox for an hour. Eventually, the “doing homework” behavior becomes linked with the “Xbox playing” behavior, and the “doing homework” behavior becomes more fun for the child because he/she knows that afterward, he/she is going to get to do the Xbox playing behavior (assuming our hypothetical child finds Xbox playing extremely reinforcing and does not particularly enjoy doing homework).

A behavior sequence is just a series of behaviors tied together by cues or commands.

So in herding, the Premack Principle is constantly at work in conjunction with sequential behavior. We use the Premack Principle all the time. When a dog is working stock at Raspberry Ridge, and we want to work on recalls off the stock, for example, Carolyn will position the handler between two pens which both have sheep in them. The dog, working the stock, will be recalled (the less preferable behavior, Shelby says, “Hey! I don’t want to leave my sheep! I love my sheep!”). As soon as she performs the less preferable behavior and comes, she is immediately sent out to the other pen of sheep to work them (the more preferable behavior, Shelby says, “Wow! New sheep to chase! I love novel sheep!”).

Shelby being recalled off the stock to go to more stock (there's a pen on the other side of the camera)

Shelby being recalled off the stock to go to more stock (there’s a pen on the other side of the camera)

When Carolyn is working her dog Dean on fetching, she uses a series of cues which were all trained and linked using the Premack Principle. Dean will be cued, “There” which means, that’s good, lie down and don’t move (less preferable behavior) until it is time for Carolyn to cue, “Go bye” or “Away to me” or “Walk up”, all cues to move and continue chasing the stock (more preferable behavior). When he is in position, he will be cued, “There” and the routine will begin again. All applications of the Premack Principle strung together in a behavior sequence.

Dean working the stock.

Dean working the stock.

In tending, the thing that keeps the tending dog going is the chance to get to chase (and potentially grip) the sheep when they cross the border. They patrol the border for hours (less preferable behavior) because they have been reinforced over and over by getting to chase the sheep back across the border (more preferable behavior).

So what does this have to do with chasing bunnies?

Well, I don’t have sheep, but there are still the boring, fundamentals to teach and drill. What I do have is an incredibly ridiculous rabbit population, and a dog that likes to chase living things. So every morning, Shelby and I work on “Bunny Chasing Practice”. I take her out on the long line (which comes with its own occupational hazards, especially for a klutz like me, but safety is important and I live near roads) and wait. We drill on fundamentals, “Lie down”, “Stand”, “Border” (without a verbal cue). I use a clicker and wait for the bunnies. When a bunny appears, I point it out to Shelby. I cue a behavior we are working on and as soon as she completes her task, I drop the long line and say, “BUNNY!”

Shelby, without looking back, chases after her prey. When the bunny escapes, she trots back to me, gets a cookie, and we continue our drilling. Shelby works hard and enjoys her work, because she knows when the next bunny appears, all she’ll have to do is “One of these boring things my mommy wants me to do” and then she’ll get to go do what she wants to do – chase bunnies.

Author’s Note: No bunnies were harmed in the making of this post…well, except those two.